Warnings of early deaths as smog chokes China

Breath of fresh air? Chinese families have been openly complaining about pollution © Getty Images

The rise of China as an economic superpower has brought the downsides as well as the advantages of industrialisation. Air pollution is now so bad it is shortening lives.

To some it was ‘apocalyptic’. Others wrote angry blogs about their fears of old and young relatives succumbing to breathing difficulties and dying in their arms.

When air pollution increases, those with existing heart conditions or respiratory problems like asthma are known to be in increased danger. But the smog in the bustling Chinese metropolis of Beijing became so bad earlier this year that even families where no one suffered from these diseases stayed indoors rather than risk their health.

With many workers advised to stay away from the office, business activity suffered a setback. Those who did venture out wore face masks, making an eerie scene even stranger. As ordinary Chinese took to the internet and the media to complain openly about their experiences, China’s ruling elite received a shock.

This week a new report warned that life expectancy in parts of China has been curtailed by more than five years because of increased air pollution, which is also causing higher rates of lung cancer, heart attacks and strokes. Smog has the equivalent effect, the study’s authors estimate, of reducing the workforce by 12.5%.

But this is not just a health or business issue: the problem is starting to have a disruptive effect on politics.

The appalling environment is cited as a reason to leave by many Chinese who emigrate. Even officials at state institutions now openly admit that the economy’s growth is not sustainable because the pollution overload has become close to unbearable for human life.

This raises an intriguing question for those who study Chinese politics: could the issue of the environment, rather than censorship or repressive family policies, be what ends the Communist state?

As one academic put it: ‘The Chinese middle class, which is particularly conscious of quality-of-life issues, could very well become a powerful source of opposition if it concludes that the one-party state is responsible for their daily miseries: poisonous air, toxic water, and unsafe food.’

Bad atmosphere

China has very rapidly acquired its economic power, pulling a once-poor people into a new era of prosperity. 150 million people now belong to the country’s new middle class. The new Communist leader Xi Jinping has promised that more will have the chance to taste freedom from poverty, even if other freedoms are still restricted.

How will the Chinese react if the economic growth which has benefitted them so much leads to intolerable levels of environmental pollution? Experts point out that high and growing levels of coal consumption are caused by the factories making goods for the newly-affluent. Can the next cohort of prosperous Chinese be persuaded to stay poor, or consume less, for the sake of clean air?

You Decide

  1. Would the quality of the environment and strength of rules to protect it affect your choice of where to live and work?
  2. Do you think politicians should give environmental considerations priority over economic prosperity?


  1. Plan a publicity campaign about the dangers of air pollution: it should include information to be released to the public about what precautions to take when pollutants breach safety levels.
  2. Creative writing: imagine you are a Chinese blogger and compose a post about your experiences during a severe smog.

Some People Say...

“Man will be the author of his own extinction.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Pollution isn’t so bad where I live.
Well, lucky you! But one day, you might find yourself living or working in China: it is already the number two economy in the world, and may even overtake the US. And even in parts of Europe and America, smog is having a serious effect on human health, as well as quality of life.
You don’t see people in the UK wearing face masks.
At present, air pollution in most of the UK remains below the levels that most people would notice. But a major new medical study, also published this week, estimated that 30,000 Britons die before they should because of the effects of air pollution, and it is in the top ten causes of death for the nation as a whole. The main culprit is road traffic.

Word Watch

Essentially, a smoky fog. Burning large amounts of coal and the emissions from road traffic are the main causes of urban air pollution and smog.
Repressive family policies
In China, most families have only been allowed to have one child since the end of the 1970s, to control population growth. In practice, wealthy families can pay a fine, but the poor have to endure forced abortions and sterilisations. There are some other exceptions.
Xi Jinping
Xi became leader of the Chinese Communist Party in November 2012, and took over as President this year in a handover of power at the top of China’s ruling elite. He has been waging a campaign to root out corruption by state officials and has promised an aspiring population that he will create a ‘Chinese Dream’ of success and prosperity open to all.
People coming up through a stage of development at the same time. A generational group. Statisticians use the term, as do those in education and training.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.